Grand Designs NZ: Build an ambitious greenhouse that doubles to nearly $1 million
review: When you hear about someone who built a glass house, it’s easy to imagine some truly magnificent architectural gems, like Philip Johnson’s home in Connecticut.
But the Grand Designs NZ project is about another kind – a greenhouse with lots of plants.
I personally love indoor plants (in limited numbers), but I’ve never been a fan of conservatories. My family rented a house there once and it was never the right temperature. Very cold in winter and very hot in summer. The sun streamed directly in from above, making it impossible to spend any time in the room—oh, and it faded everything, ruined fabrics and attracted mold.
So I’m fascinated by architect Tessa Kingsbury’s plan to build a house around a greenhouse, but then she’s in Dunedin. Tessa specializes in hospital design and has settled in the city after years of globetrotting, working on plans for Dunedin’s new hospital.
She likes the idea of being nourished by plants: “It’s a bit of magic that happens.” very right.
One of her colleagues found her a “strange” and tired old building. It is a 70 year old Sunday school hall that used to belong to a church in Anderson Bay. “I’ve made a lot of furniture in my life, and this is just a bigger version of that,” she says.
It’s a very leaky building – there are 25 buckets catching drips under a wide, barrel-vaulted roof.
As it turns out, the actual greenhouse will be a transitional space between the studio’s guest quarters at one end, and her private residence at the other. But it’s all under one new roof — part iron, part glass, which curves down into the same cylindrical shape as the original. But there will be all-glass walls providing views from each house to the glass house in the middle. Will humidity be a problem here?
The living spaces at both ends are compact. The studio end is only three rooms, but Tessa says it offers a lot of flexibility. Her accommodation isn’t huge either, but she says it’s enough.
She talks about how it would look with all the curved glass encasing a third of the building in the middle (how will she clean it?), and she’s not convinced she won’t be seen showering.
Demolition begins, and once the “bad” parts (including the rat’s nest) of Tessa’s “Nissan shack” are removed, because that’s basically what this building is, there’s not much left.
She is struggling to save her big tree that is already damaged. Wherever she goes, she’s accompanied by Buddy, the sweet motherless sheep she adopted. (He must stay.)
The massive curved steel roof portals are the building’s mainstay, and they take time, but they take shape exactly as planned. Meanwhile, Tessa plans to plant the middle. No tomatoes. It will be more than just a formal greenhouse for screening.
“This is not a little greenhouse, come to a backyard shed,” notes presenter Tom Webster. “The size of this place could fit in the forest.” He also says it will be a lifelong experience. It’s easy to imagine. Some things will work, others won’t.
The iron roof has been completely replaced
Corrugated iron runs at both ends, in matte black, and is also reminiscent of a Nissan Hut. But what about this glass ceiling? By mid-fall, everything is in place, and it looks amazing. Then there is a problem with the corrugated iron, and the entire assembly has to be removed. Some problems with the paint.
Everything was replaced, and then the same thing happened with the multi-paned glass walls overlooking the glass house. They are all the wrong sizes (measure twice, cut once!). There is no way to recycle the 31 panels, as they must all be destroyed.
New ones are being manufactured and installed. Friends arrive to help compact the huge amount of soil into the greenhouse.
In an attempt to reuse elements, the interior wooden doors are from a former government house, and look great after being completely refinished. As is the case with stair treads, which are ancient floor joists.
Meanwhile, the budget grows from $480,000 to $600,000 and Tessa isn’t finished yet. She says she often relied on naivety and stupidity, but as Webster says, that’s how she achieves things she never would have otherwise.
And it’s time to reveal
Webster stops outside on a cold day, and the place looks like something that just arrived from the future. The black and glass barrel roof resembles a long cylinder, and there is smoke pouring out of the smoke stack. It could be a strange, steampunk building.
The name of St Michael’s Hall is still above the door. Webster pauses, and looks at the greenhouse garden, which is not quite a forest, but there is grass, some plants, and a tree.
“It’s going to evolve, and I can’t wait,” says Tessa. “I’m as excited about this park as I was about the building when I first saw it.”
The best effects seem to be when you’re inside and looking out, particularly at the big old tree brushing the glass. I wonder if it’s very humid there, or if that’s not a factor because it’s Dunedin and not Auckland?
Tessa’s private suite has beautiful parquet floors – it was the former theatre. There is a lot of glass. Even the bedroom wall is transparent – and one can’t be ashamed to undress here.
The studio is particularly gorgeous in red brick and wood. The mezzanine is a hit, and Tessa thinks she could be happy living at either end.
There is no doubt when you live in a house like this you are strongly connected to the weather and what is happening outside. It’s about living close to nature. I get it.
“It’s a place where you can break some rules,” Tessa says. One of these appears to be budget. The build came out almost double what I expected. In other words, just under a million dollars. This is in addition to $353,000 for the site.
It may seem like a lot of money for not a lot of actual homes, but that’s what happens when you run with your imagination and don’t stop dreaming. The house that we see is wonderful, it is a large building that mixes light and heavy elements, dark and light, old and new elements very skillfully.
You can tell Tessa would be very happy here with all the transparency, but she might want to carefully choose her guests who spend the night.